Stop Caring So Much About What Consumers Want!

Customer Needs

Sometimes engaging consumers is just simple stuff. It doesn’t have to be cutting edge, neuroscientific, mood-based, scent-targeted, algorithmic advertising. Have you tried making your brand easier to find?

In the world of marketing, there’s a fine line between understanding the consumer and stalking the consumer. You can imagine the marketer like a jilted ex-lover, poring over your favourite scents and intimate nostalgic memories and scheming how to make you feel like you’re missing out. This is the era of marketing madness.

navigating customer minds

These days, marketers forensically analyse their customers, developing an opulent buffet of ingredients for gorging them with brand sensations. ‘Moodvertising’, for example, contextually targets adverts based on mood, like Knorr promoting its soup when the weather turns cold or Snickers sending you ‘you’re not you when you’re hungry’ Spotify ads when you listen to music outside of your usual tastes. Scent marketing uses the power of our nose-holes to draw us in, like the smell of chocolate increasing sales of romance books. Nostalgia marketing pulls at your heart strings with memories of simpler, better times, like Uber Eats ‘schwinging’ with Wayne’s World in their Super Bowl 2021 advert. 

But where does it end? Mood-targeted ads at funerals, to cheer you up with a little ice-cream? An Eau d’Onion scent to celebrate a supermarket’s fresh produce? An ad personalised with pictures from your childhood home to jerk your tears?

And what about the future? Will AI algorithms predict your mood swings before they happen; will you stroll through supermarkets in the Metaverse personalised to your browsing history? Will your every like, click, and pause be meticulously analysed, making you wonder if you’re choosing the product or if it’s choosing you?

So marketers – stop being creepy! Consumers don’t want to be pandered to all the time. Would you? Which suitor would you prefer, the one who digs through your rubbish and sends you flowers every day, or the one who just does their own thing? There’s a lot of value in being a little hard-to-get – that is, mysterious and self-assured. People appreciate strength of character, particularly in tough and turbulent times like these (so Terror Management Theory research tells us). We like brands we can cling to, brands that offer us something simple and certain, rather than those that are wishy-washy and vague, endlessly tossed around on the winds of public opinion and neuroscience synapses.

In the relentless chase of the customer mindset, business risk becoming short-sighted and failing to build brands long-term. It’s like the politicians who never actually get anything done because they abandon their principles (assuming they had any) and instead follow the fickle whims of public opinion. Gap famously suffered when they made their brand more milquetoast and dull, promptly reverting to the original. Yet countless brands didn’t revert; they lost what makes them unique and reached instead for the bland middle ground, all in the name of pleasing ‘The Consumer’. Brand logos have become homogenised: most these days are simple, bold, sans-serif fonts in monochrome, like an optician’s eye-test. Burberry and Yves Saint Laurent, for example, once so distinct, now could not be picked out from a distance. It’s all so mind-numbingly safe. Best not upset The Consumer!

The thing about innovation is that it often doesn’t come from science. Creativity is messy. That is in fact the very definition of creativity – a blurring of boundaries, putting things together than wouldn’t normally. Chocolate is great, and peanut butter is great, but it took a creative (presumably Reese) to put them together. Creativity is to be found in the muddle, and in divine inspiration, not in obsessively perfected consumer testing and algorithms. The Nike Swoosh sprung from the brain of a lowly graphic design student for $35.

As Steve Jobs famously said, ‘Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach… People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research.’

Indeed, consumers often don’t even know what they want. Reams of psychological research on the attitude-behaviour gap attests to this. One large-scale survey across Europe asked people how much they cared about the environment, and which eco-friendly behaviours (like eating less meat) they engaged in. The researchers found small correlations and concluded that attitudes seldom explain more than 10% of the variance in behaviour.

None of us has a particularly good view into the inner workings of our subconscious. We can guess what we’d buy or how we’d react to a new advert, but that’s really all it is – a guess. New Coke was launched after it passed tasting tests, focus groups and surveys, but ended up being such a colossal failure. It’s a regular in marketing textbooks. Tropicana created a new packaging for their juice, designed based on consumer research, which they had to abandon after millions of dollars of lost sales because people didn’t recognise it.

Also Recommended: Top 50 CX and Martech Books for Marketing Professionals in 2024

Sometimes engaging consumers is just simple stuff. It doesn’t have to be cutting edge, neuroscientific, mood-based, scent-targeted, algorithmic advertising. Have you tried making your brand easier to find? Have you tried talking about the product benefits on your website? Have you put a talking duck in your adverts? Countless studies show, for example, the benefit of placing products in the middle shelf, at the front of the store, at eye height, and so on. It’s not always about decoding the enigma of consumer desires.

I myself once worked for an insurance company, who wanted to increase customer use of their chatbot. They consulted me and asked for any sneaky psychological tactics we might use; in the end, we put a big arrow next to the chat, and it more than doubled engagement.

Look, obviously – obviously – brands need to do research, and talk to their consumers. The problem lies in obsession. Caring too much about what consumers want can lead to stagnation and homogeneity and nothingness. In short, bleh. I mean, have you seen a Disney film recently? Instead, brands should have a little confidence in themselves. Stop caring so much what consumers want (they don’t even know) and focus instead on what it means to be the most authentic version of you.

In short, brands, just be yourself.